Every five years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly issue the latest iteration of the federal government’s formal guidance on healthy eating, the Nutrition Guidelines. These Guidelines not only inform as to how government feeds its millions of employees (including the military) and those who eat in a government facility (i.e. public schools, prisons), but they also influence food-related laws and regulations.
A federal advisory committee is expected to report its recommended updates for the 2015 Guideline to HHS and USDA this month. If the committee’s proceedings and its December 15, 2014 interim report are any indication, the 2015 “My Plate” will feature supersized, empty-calorie portions of activism and food-nanny nagging. We should expect to be lectured on the need to eat “sustainably,” the imperative for mandated “added sugars” food labeling, and the importance of imposing marketing restrictions on certain foods.
The advisory committee. None of this comes as a surprise, given the makeup of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) and the motivations of the regulators at HHS and USDA who appointed its 15 members. Every single member hails from academia, and as one assessment of the DGAC and its work published by Capital Research Center noted,
There is not a single business owner, family physician, working nutritionist, food services executive, or federal nutrition program director in the mix.
That assessment wisely added that such homogeneity enhances the DGAC’s likelihood of “groupthink.”
Some committee members have openly advocated for government intervention in our dietary choices, while others have exhibited hostility toward particular foods, such as beef. Vice Chair Alice Lichtenstein, a Tufts University professor, for instance, has championed policies aimed at shifting consumer demand in the media and in academic presentations, including this ideologically-tinged speech where she takes a macabre shot at Ronald McDonald (35:41 of the video). DGAC member Frank Hu of Harvard University, on the basis of an observational study he co-authored, has publicly urged Americans to abandon even moderate consumption of red meat in favor of “a plant-based diet.” Are these really the people who we want advising Americans on healthy eating?
“Sustainable” eating? That “plant-based diet” which Dr. Hu advocates figures prominently in the DGAC’s interim recommendations. They suggest a diet “Rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains . . .” and “Lower in red and processed meat.” But is the committee’s recommendation based solely on the latest nutritional science, or is it motivated by something other than dietary health? That question must be asked given the work of the DGAC subcommittee, “Food Sustainability and Safety.” That subcommittee studied the “Proportional environmental impacts (greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution) of current growing and processing practices for the overall food system,” which included a focus on meat.
The subcommittee includes Dr. Hu, and its work was informed by two consultants, Tufts University’s Timothy Griffin and Michigan State’s Michael Hamm, both of whom are experts in agricultural sustainability but have no expertise on human nutrition. The DGAC heard testimony last January from Dr. Kate Clancy of the Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. Dr. Clancy singled out beef as the “greatest concern” with regard to “biodiversity, land use, greenhouse gas emissions,” etc. She favorably cited to “European precedents” for environmentally-healthy food, such as Sweden’s 2009 “Environmentally-smart Food Choices” guidelines and 2011 guidelines from the Netherlands, “Guidelines for a Healthy Diet: The Ecological Perspective.”
The report DGAC voted to submit at its December 15 meeting included the following language, unchanged from previous meetings and unmoved by the many skeptical public comments it received on “sustainability”: “A diet higher in plant-based foods . . . and lower in animal-based foods, is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”
The use of “associated with,” which falls well short of a causal relationship, is quite revealing. The interim report calls for extensive research on the relationship between “sustainable” foods and Americans’ health (which not coincidentally would create a source of sustainable government research funding for academics of the DGAC members’ ilk). All that exists at this point, as Dr. C. Alan Rotz of Penn State University noted in his comment to the DGAC, is “a growing amount of pseudo science coming available that is primarily developed to condemn certain products and lifestyles.” With no actual scientific basis for their conclusion, the quoted language above should be stricken from the final DGAC report. If it is not, the secretaries of HHS and USDA should heed the warning the House of Representatives issued as a “Congressional Directive” in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations Legislation and ignore this DGAC recommendation when developing the 2015 Dietary Guidelines.
“Added Sugars.” DGAC’s interim final report also mirrors public health activists’ claims against “added sugars.” It doesn’t, of course, bother to explain that sugars that are “added” bear no physiological difference from sugars that are intrinsic in food. The language suggested by the DGAC’s “Added Sugars Working Group,” and adopted by the full committee, includes support for the FDA’s effort to list “added sugars” under “total sugars” on the Nutrition Facts label. As we’ve noted previously on this blog and in comments Washington Legal Foundation filed with FDA, the need for such a distinct “added sugars” line lacks any statutory or scientific basis, is more likely to mislead consumers than positively inform them, and is constitutionally suspect under the First Amendment.
The interim final report also includes support for “economic and pricing approaches, using incentives and disincentives” for the reduction of added sugars (similar to what Berkeley, California will be implementing this year?), and calls for “Policies that limit exposure and marketing of foods and beverages high in added sugars to young children, youth and adolescents.” Such recommendations certainly would be in line with the types of policies DGAC Vice Chair Lichtenstein has advocated in the past, but they have no place in the federal government’s official nutrition guidelines.
What’s Next? After the DGAC issues its final report this month, the committee will disband and HHS and USDA will either accept or reject the report. If the agencies accept the report, a public comment period will commence. We trust that the agencies will then take such comments more seriously than DGAC took those it received last year. Most likely, Congress will also weigh in.
The federal government’s Dietary Guidelines have always fallen short of providing clear, consistent recommendations for healthy eating. But 2015 may mark the year that the Guidelines go from being an easily dismissed distraction to a damaging vehicle for eating away at Americans’ freedom of choice.
Also published by Forbes.com on WLF’s contributor page